Why they just don’t put up a hard border in Ireland

August 22nd, 2019

From Topping, who served there with the British Army during the Troubles

It was sobering listening to Simon Byrne, a bluff Northerner and current chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), this morning on the radio opining on the practicalities of policing a hard border should it be required. He feared a return to a paramilitary style of policing and how, with his 7,000 policemen, it would be impossible to fulfil such a remit.

At the height of Op Banner, the British military operation in Northern Ireland that ran from 1969 to 2007, there were around 40,000 forces throughout the Province consisting of 20,000 soldiers from the British army (plus personnel from other arms), 13,500 policemen from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the PSNI), and 7,500 soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Tasks included supporting the police as they performed their duties as well as more specialist operations. This was at a time when the British army was 150,000 strong and, with the notable exception of the campaign to reclaim the Falkland Islands in 1982, and until Gulf War I in 1991, there were no other ongoing military engagements.

The British army is now 80,000 strong, the PSNI numbers 7,000, and the UDR is no more. Something like 70% of the army has never been on operations (in a combat situation as opposed to practising for one).

Supposing there were the political will (a huge if: my suspicion is there wouldn’t be), Her Majesty’s Forces would be unable to replicate Op Banner as the numbers are simply not there. At roughly half the strength and with many other commitments, the same and necessary level of manning would not be possible.

If, as Simon Byrne fears, we are about to return to paramilitary style policing in Northern Ireland then there would also need to be some tactical re-education. The British army went into the Middle East loudly proclaiming the superiority of its fighting forces and tactics based upon its Northern Ireland experiences. This supposed superiority was quickly shown to be illusory as the mode of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan little resembled the intelligence-led operations and peculiarities of patrolling a divided domestic community, where a typical outing comprised two police constables walking down the street, seemingly without a care in the world save for checking on tax discs, with typically 12 soldiers on satellite patrol in support plus air cover plus other units available.

Following two decades of essentially war fighting in hot climes there would need to be a return to a bygone and one had hoped obsolete era for the British army with a further tactical change to be able to undertake a domestic counter insurgency campaign of the type that might emerge once more in the six counties. A campaign that would also of course be conducted under the glare and scrutiny of thousands of mobile phones and perhaps in an even more antagonistic environment than last time.

Put up a border, some people cry; that will bring the Republic back to the negotiating table, they say. But aside from the many administrative, legal, and political considerations of such a strategy, its advocates ignore, perhaps deliberately perhaps through ignorance, its many and severe practical challenges.



Red Letter Day. Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of being next Prime Minister

August 22nd, 2019

It used to be so easy. For the period after the 2017 general election when Theresa May was Prime Minister, all you had to do was take advantage of Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiasts and regularly lay him for next Prime Minister at the short prices that prevailed. Since she had made it plain that she was not going to fight the next election, so the circumstances in which he would be next Prime Minister were very limited indeed.  

He wasn’t the silliest favourite for that race (Jacob Rees-Mogg must take that honour), but he was a very marked lay at 6 or 7, a price at which he hovered for well over a year. The transfer of funds from naïve Corbynites to cynical political bettors was not exactly 21st century socialism, but it was near enough.

The next Prime Minister market has reopened. We’re only one month on but it’s an entirely different race. Boris Johnson shows no intention of passing on the baton to a new Conservative contender if he fails. We need to look at this question from first principles.

There are five circumstances to consider: Jeremy Corbyn might immediately take office following a vote of no confidence in September; there might be an immediate pre-Brexit general election; there might be an early post-Brexit general election; there might be an early election following a failure to Brexit on 31 October; and there might be a much later general election. Let’s look at each in turn.

Jeremy Corbyn himself has offered to lead a temporary government to extend the Article 50 notice period and hold a referendum. It is evident that as at today’s date that will not fly. Will MPs get less picky in September or October? It seems unlikely – all the reasons why Jo Swinson and Oliver Letwin will not contemplate Jeremy Corbyn as even temporary Prime Minister will continue to apply. I’d place a roughly 15% chance of a coalition of the unwilling taking office before 31 October 2019 to halt a no deal Brexit, and I give Jeremy Corbyn no more than a 20% chance of leading such a government.

What if there’s a vote of no confidence and no alternative government is called We’d have the excitement of seeing whether the Prime Minister dare try to name a date that would forestall any attempt to stop a no deal Brexit on 31 October 2019, and whether that would be challenged in the courts if he did.  Either way, the campaign would be dominated in large part by the looming shadow of Brexit. That is not good terrain for Jeremy Corbyn, since his message on Brexit reverberates with almost exactly no one. There’s probably only a 10% chance of such an election which is just as well for Jeremy Corbyn because I’d give him only about a 20% chance of getting enough seats in such an election to form a government.

Things perk up for Jeremy Corbyn considerably if the next election takes place with a campaign after 31 October. No one ever got an election victory as a thank you and the Conservatives remain very light on their forward-looking proposition. Rumour has it that Dominic Cummings is looking to fill that void, but as Sajid Javid’s fiasco over stamp duty shows, policies cannot be magicked up out of thin air. Labour already has eye-catching policies ready to roll (whether or not they are particularly coherent or realistic). 

If Brexit has happened, the campaign is likely to have regular stories about some form of Brexit-related disruption, which will automatically have the government on the defensive. The whole terrain of such a campaign would suit Labour well. Such an election will only take place if forced on the government by Parliament (I’d place a 30% chance on this, probably taking place early in 2020 if so) and I would give Jeremy Corbyn at least a 50% chance of getting enough seats to form a government.

If Brexit has not happened by 31 October, a different danger arises.  Boris Johnson would be a busted flush. Far from do or die, he would be done for.  The only question is whether a general election was triggered before the Conservatives replaced him. There’s a 30% chance of this permutation in my view, and I’d expect the Conservatives to win the race at least 50% of the time. 

If they don’t, I’d expect Jeremy Corbyn to lead the largest party roughly 80% of the time – the Conservatives would be in chaos, with the Brexit party and the Lib Dems both tearing strips off them all over the place. His biggest problem would be forming a coalition if he needed to, because the Lib Dems are clearly not going to work with him and they look set to be a much more formidable Parliamentary presence after such an election. So I reduce his chances to being next Prime Minister by this permutation by 25%.

That leaves the other possibility, that the government somehow navigates Scylla and Charybdis and steers a course on Brexit that enables it to go long.  You will already have worked out that I make this just a 15% chance. In these circumstances, the government would have every prospect of success. It would have a track record, it would have time to build a programme for the next five years and we have no reason to believe that Jeremy Corbyn would be any more popular than he is now. I’d expect Jeremy Corbyn to form the next government only a third of the time on such a permutation, and that’s probably being charitable.

Adding all these up, I come to the conclusion that Jeremy Corbyn has a roughly 1 in 3 chance of being next Prime Minister. Current Betfair odds imply that he has less than a 1 in 4 chance. That makes backing him a clearly marked bet. I’m on.

Alastair Meeks


HS2 might be hated by Tory activists but scrapping it could lead the party to being portrayed as being anti-north

August 22nd, 2019


The biggest mistake that was made over HS2 was to call it just that. This is why it polls so poorly. It sounds like a vanity project which is exactly what it isn’t. The new line would free up chronic under-capacity on the existing West Coast Main Line including for all the local and commuter services. If this had been billed as “West Coast Mainline upgrade” it wouldn’t have attracted anything like the opposition.

So the decision to review it even though £7bn has already been spent has much wider implications than just being able to travel between London and Birmingham a few minutes  faster.

A worry that the Tories should have over this is the potential for it to become an issue in a general election where the party which is mostly southern based will need to pick up existing LAB seats in the midlands and the North.

For the Tories look set to lose most of the 12 Scottish gains that rescued TMay at GE2017 and are also highly vulnerable to the anti-Brexit LDs particularly in Remain areas.

This has been said many time but Scotland and the LD revival could cost the blue team dozens of seats that will have to be offset by gains from Labour if Johnson is to secure a majority. The big question is whether they are able to do that. This was supposed to have happened at GE2017 but what we saw was Labour make gains the Tory’s expense.

The challenge here is that many of the potential targets are in the Midlands and the North of England and anything that could portray the party as being, say, anti-North, might not be very smart.

BJohnson might try to make the election all about implementing the referendum result but that could be hard to sustain over five weeks of a campaign when the broadcasters are legally required to give more equal airtime to opposition parties. A narrative about the party being anti-north could easily gather momentum and decisions over where huge infrastructure spending goes could be made into a powerful campaign issue.

Yesterday’s announcement, with the benefit of hindsight, might not in a few months time look smart.

Mike Smithson



A man of principles. Boris Johnson and the EU

August 21st, 2019

If consistency is the sign of a small mind, then Boris Johnson must have a brain the size of a planet. For he has slid from position to position on the EU like Bambi on ice.

In 2003, he opened a speech to the House of Commons, in which he advocated Turkish membership of the EU, thus: 

“It is hard to think of a measure that the Government could have brought to the House that I could support more unreservedly and with greater pleasure than this Bill to expand the European Union. To sum up my response, I would merely say, “And about time too.” 

He went on to confirm: “I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it.”

By 2012 he was already flirting with Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, he was at pains to reassure the public that his vision meant that: “We could construct a relationship with the EU that more closely resembled that of Norway or Switzerland – except that we would be inside the single market council, and able to shape legislation”. He confirmed in 2013 that he would vote to stay in the single market and that he was in favour of it.

In early 2016 he famously wrote two articles, one in favour of Leave and one in favour of Remain, before plumping for team Brexit.  

Vote Leave chose to prioritise immigration control over access to the single market in their ultimately-successful campaign, demonising the Turks that Boris Johnson himself had previously campaigned in Parliament to allow into the EU. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson still hankered after his earlier position, stating even in the wake of the referendum result that Britain could have access to the single market (something that was rapidly squelched from Brussels).

Negotiations with the EU did not go well. Still, in July 2017 he announced with his sunny optimism that “There is no plan for no deal, because we’re going to get a great deal”. He did not help with the negotiating process. In the same speech he said that the EU could “go whistle” if they expected Britain to pay a settlement on withdrawing from the EU.

Britain nevertheless agreed to make a payment to settle its obligations in September 2017 and in December 2017 he congratulated the Prime Minister’s successful negotiation of the first stage (which included an agreement to this payment, the foundations of the Northern Irish backstop and protections for EU citizens in Britain). As late as March 2018, he opined that “The PM’s Mansion House speech sets out a clear and convincing vision for our future partnership with the EU”. He wobbled back and forth for the first half of 2018, with his apotheosis being first to toast the Chequers proposal and then, three days later (after David Davis had resigned), to resign over it.

In September 2018, he described the Chequers plan as “substantially worse than the status quo”. He maintained that position when the final deal emerged in November 2018, describing it even before its release as “vassal state stuff”.  Despite that, Boris Johnson eventually voted for it in March 2019 at the third time of asking.

In March 2019 and April 2019, Britain twice confirmed to the EU (in return for obtaining an extension to the Article 50 notice period) that it would not seek to reopen negotiations over the withdrawal agreement.

Boris Johnson secured leadership of the Conservative party and with it the Premiership, campaigning on leaving the EU on 31 October 2019, deal or no deal. He now argues that this is required to respect the referendum result, despite having wafted away the idea of no deal as late as a year after the referendum result.

It is against that background that we must assess Boris Johnson’s current line on the EU. His workrate has declined. He wrote two articles in 2016 before deciding how to campaign in the referendum. This month, he wrote only half a letter to the EU setting out his revised position.

He sets out his objections but does not propose a solution. The backstop that formed part of the interim deal that he had once congratulated the Prime Minister on is now described as “anti-democratic”. He wants the problem to be looked at in the next phase. He recognises that “there would need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help”.

When you’re looking to rewrite an agreement – especially one that your side has specifically agreed twice that it will not seek to rewrite –it’s usually best to have a clear proposal that your weary negotiating partners can weigh. And when you’re looking to build confidence – especially when you have skidded all over the place on a subject – you need to have a simple and compelling proposition. Since his government also simultaneously appears to be undermining the protections offered to EU citizens in Britain that had previously been agreed by a government he formed part of, it is hard to take this latest development remotely seriously.  

Boris Johnson is many things but he is not stupid. He will not have high hopes that this initiative will result in changes to the withdrawal agreement. His hopes lie elsewhere. He has spent the best part of 20 years telling the British public on the subject of the EU whatever he thinks will best serve his interests.  Given his track record, you might well think that he is insulting the British public’s intelligence. Sadly, it seems only too likely that he has its accurate measure.

Alastair Meeks


The lead of “Brexit Wrong” in the YouGov tracker drops to its lowest level since last December

August 21st, 2019

The good news Johnson continues with a 42% CON share from Kantar

But voters want the final deal to be put to a public vote

Mike Smithson


With the Iowa betting markets now being opened a helpful primer on how its caucuses actually work

August 21st, 2019

Ladbrokes and Betfair have now got markets up on the first big hurdle in WH2020 – the Iowa Caucuses which are scheduled for February 3rd next year. Because of their historical importance and that so many Democrats are contenders this looks set to be a hugely significant day and a very big betting event.

The first thing to remember about them is that only a smallish proportion of Democrats and Republicans actually participate. This time for both parties it might reach 20% of their voters in the state. This is critical because what the remaining 80% think is totally irrelevant and has no impact on the outcome.

That makes polling extraordinarily challenging. Whilst maybe much larger proportions than 20% might tell pollsters they plan to attend their caucus the experience is that the actual turnout level is a lot smaller. Going out for a 7pm event on a freezing Iowan February evening is not something that has wide appeal.

The second thing as to what actually happens is well explained in the 2016 video above.

What we do know is the contenders with good ground organisation who have invested the time in the state tend to perform best. We also know there is the potential for Iowa to throw up big surprises.

Mike Smithson



The first YouGov for a fortnight sees CON/LAB/LD holding pretty firm

August 20th, 2019


By a small margin punters think the next general election will happen before Brexit

August 20th, 2019

Chart of Betfair Exchange from Betdata.io

We’ve discussed the timing of the next general election a fair bit on PB and my guess is that we’ll return to it quite often in the next few weeks.

It might not be as easy for a general election to be called as many seem to think. For a general election to take place the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes it a requirement that two thirds of the entire House of Commons, 433 mps, vote for it.

The problem here is that there are quite a number of MPs in the main two parties who are very much split on Brexit and it might be that you won’t see the same level of unity in either party backing a proposal to go early as happened with Mrs. May in April 2017.

Given current Scottish polling has the Tory position north of the border looking dire maybe not many Scottish Tories would support a BJohnson general election motion. The same could apply to those seats where the LDs, who’ve tripled their GE2017 vote according to several polls, are in contention.

We have a reports of rebels in both the Tories and LAB who are not prepared to follow the leadership line on Brexit related matters. Quite how we quantify this is hard the say but given that some MPs, by voting for an early election, could be voting to deprive themselves of their income and their standing as members of parliament than it could be harder than it appears.

The LAB threats to deselect certain MPs by imposing mandatory re-selection is hardly going to help things.

The other way an election can be called is by the Tories losing a confidence vote which is not rescinded within two weeks. Given the current numbers it is hard to see enough backing the move.

Mike Smithson